Going to a top law school can mean greater job opportunities, wider name recognition and the chance to learn and network with top students and faculty. That’s also why they’re tough to get into. If you’re reaching for a top law school, we have 10 great tips on getting you in, from the ones who let you in. On our show are deans of admission from some of the most selective law schools in the nation. We also talk with a leading admissions consultant about the things you should know before and when you apply.
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Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan. Going to a top law school generally paves the way toward greater job opportunities, given the strong name recognition of the school, and the chance to learn and network with top students and faculty. If you are reaching for a top law school, we have 10 great tips to get you in, from the ones who let you in.
In this segment you will hear from Dean for Admissions Anne Richards of The University of Virginia School of Law, Renee Post of The University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Richard Geiger of Cornell Law School, as well as Andrea Kilpatrick with Admit Advantage.
Before we unveil our top ten, let’s set the stage for what you’re up against. Associate Dean Richard Geiger of Cornell Law School says it’s going to take more than just one quality or accomplishment to get you into a top law school. “One of the main things I would emphasize to anybody who’s seriously thinking about trying to get into a top law school is to recognize going in that no one thing is going to do it for them. That they’re basically going to have to be strong on a lot of different parameters, in order to be a viable candidate at a top law school. What we’re looking for are people who will thrive and engage in what is going to be a very exciting, intense, challenging intellectual atmosphere. To do that and to do it effectively at a top school, you really do have to be very good on a lot of different measures. The top schools, you know, for better or worse, have the luxury of choice. We don’t really need to take risks on somebody who we don’t think is going to be an active contributor. And so we don’t.”
And you will be competing in a wide diverse pool of candidates, says Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions Anne Richards at the University of Virginia School of Law. She says top law schools look for diversity in age and ethnicity, as well as a vast differential in work experience and credentials. “There are going to be people coming straight out of college who are involved in student betterment or different community service organizations on campus, campus ministries, you know, church missions, pre-law societies, working with faculty on individual research projects, publishing papers, presenting at conferences, things like that. Or study abroad – a lot of students do a semester abroad, so we’re seeing what kinds of things they did there. Some do public service work internationally during the summers. And others just work in, you know, bars, restaurants, do what they have to do financially. So there’s no… there’s no perfect package that we’re looking for, for people coming straight out of school.
“And in terms of people who’ve been out of school for awhile, we see a lot of applicants who have worked on Capitol Hill, or been paralegals in law firms, or have worked in accounting firms, you know, other kinds of firms; or who are doing Teach for America, AmeriCorps, other public service organization participation, and that’s… those are all good things. We’re seeing, you know, a lot of military people that are coming into law school now, and certainly military service is something that’s valued.
“Then there are other people who have…this year we had a gentleman in his 40s who was a very strong applicant, had a whole career as a journalist and now he’s working in the IT field, and wants to come back to law school to enhance his skill set so that he can work more on kind of the policy side of protecting intellectual property, and things like that.
“So it’s really a… it’s a broad, broad spectrum that we’re seeing in law school. So I think what’s especially important for people coming straight from college to keep in mind it’s not just being a great student, and doing some, you know, leadership things in college. They’re not competing against only people coming straight from college, but they’re competing in applicant pools that are very diverse in terms of age and professional backgrounds and experience and different qualifications. And every law school is looking to bring all kinds of different people into the mix, to have the rich class. So we want some kids coming straight through, who’ve just… who’ve been great students and great citizens of their universities. And then we want, you know, more mature people who’ve been out doing all… you know, have had established professions, and that have been out there doing, you know, things in private industry. At least, you know, the military folks contribute a great deal, based on their experience and what they’ve done.”
Law school admissions committees are looking for candidates that will complement the school’s culture. In other words, “find your fit” – that’s tip number one. Renee Post is the Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at The University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Think about what your career ambitions are, what type of environment you thrive in, and start doing your research about law schools. Can you see yourself there for three years?”
More specifically, pick a school that’s going to be the best match for you. Andrea Kilpatrick is the Director of Law Admissions for Admit Advantage. “Everybody looks at numbers. And everyone wants to go to the schools that have the sort of highest ranking on US News and World Report. But there are a lot of other ways to think about which schools you should be going to. And I think people need to think about why exactly it is they want to go to law school. So people will say, you know, ‘Because I want to be a lawyer.’ But if your goal is to be an attorney, you could go to any law school, and as long as you graduated and passed the bar, you were technically an attorney.
“But people usually have more of a specific reason, whether it’s because they want to practice in a certain field, or they want a certain type of job or a status job, or they want to live in a certain geography. I think people just need to think about what those reasons are, before they go about finalizing a list of where they’re going to apply. And there’s a lot of information that you can find on the school websites and just on the web in general that kind of give you a feel of, you know, which law schools produce more, you know, Supreme Court judges; which law schools are better for working in finance; and which law schools have a better trial preparation program.”
Ask yourself key questions: What is your passion? What drives you? Be self-aware about what you’re doing, according to Dean Post. “You have all of these different components in front of you as an applicant. You have your academic history. You have your professional and extracurricular experiences, community service experiences. You have the perspective that you’re going to bring to the essay. You have identified your recommenders. You know, think critically about, Is there something missing here? Will there be a question by the admissions committee? And if there is, you want to have that question answered.”
Consider the cost of law school. Consider what you want to do with a law degree. Consider your passions – family law, environmental, business – and how the school can help you pursue that passion. In other words, “know yourself” – that’s tip number two, from Andrea Kilpatrick at Admit Advantage. “People have to figure out what their passion is, and how law school can help them pursue that passion. And it’s a great education. As an attorney myself, I loved going to law school. It’s fun. You get to argue lots of great issues with your friends. And everybody likes to talk in front of people. Or some people don’t, but they learn to. And you know, it’s a great education. It helps you learn to think more analytically. It helps you figure out how to evaluate all sides of an issue or a problem. It solves problems. Improves your communication.
“So there are a lot of general skills that going to law school will provide you, and that’s why a lot of people go to law school actually not intending to be practicing attorneys, at least not for a long time. So I always knew, when I went to law school, that I wasn’t going to end up being a lawyer, because my passion is actually education, and I was interested in education law, and equality in education. So, I met a lot of people who actually also had other outside-of-legal-practice aspirations. And law school can be a good platform for that, as well. But you do have to think hard about it because it’s quite a big investment.”
It’s also important to “plan ahead, so that you’re applying at the strategically optimal time”, according to Dean Post at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. And that’s tip number three. “If you are planning to matriculate in the fall of a certain year, you want to start this process about 18 months in advance, so that you have ample time to take your LSAT, request all of your transcripts, identify who you want to write your letters of recommendation, and provide them ample time to submit those letters of recommendation. You [need] time to think about your personal statement — what is that going to be about? What is the best way to portray the perspective that I’m going to bring to the school?”
Planning ahead will boost your chances of acceptance, agrees Richard Geiger, Dean of Admissions at Cornell Law School. “Apply as early as feasible. Get things lined up the summer before you’re planning to submit your application. Start thinking about your recommenders. It’s actually pretty important, especially for the top law schools, because we use recommendations to sort of triangulate on your record. And we like to see… you know, if you’ve got a strong record we’re going to expect to see some strong and good recommendations. You know, if you’ve got a strong record and then the recommenders just writing you, you know, two sentences, that’s a red flag for us. So you know, people need to think in advance about who’s going to do a good job for them.
“Get your application in, in the early part of the fall. It’s not so much because it’s easier to get into law schools at that point, but you won’t get bogged down in the crunch that occurs, you know, in January and February. It’s more likely that your application will move on a faster track if you do get it in, in the early fall.
“That said, if you can’t put together your best possible application at that point, then don’t. Wait. Wait until you can do that. And sometimes that means, you know, waiting until December or January. It won’t hurt… it won’t affirmatively hurt you to be in at that point. My only real point on the, you know, the ‘apply early’ is that you can get things rolling along faster, if it’s feasible.”
You must have a strong academic record, or you will not get into a top law school, says Dean Geiger of Cornell. That leads us to tip number four – “numbers count”. So be realistic. At UVA, the median is 170 on the LSAT, and a 3.86 on the undergraduate GPA. But it’s more than just the numbers, says Dean Richards. “We do look in depth at the transcript [and] the type of curriculum that one pursued, the kinds of courses people took, you know, where they did very well, [and] where they may have struggled. So it’s like it’s a bigger analysis than just the raw numbers. There will be people admitted who have a higher LSAT score and a lower GPA, and vice versa. So it really is a kind of a total package analysis that we’re looking at, in terms of LSAT and GPA.”
Numbers are a proxy for what Admissions is looking for, that you will be a successful student and will make a positive contribution to the legal field, says Kilpatrick. “They need to see that you, first of all, can think like an attorney, which means that you can see all sides of a problem, that if somebody gives you a set of facts, you can figure out the answer to a situation. And that’s what’s measured on the LSAT, largely, that you have good reading comprehension skills, because you read an awful lot as a lawyer. And so, you know, it’s important to try your best, and to, obviously, apply yourself both in school and on test day, when you’re taking the LSAT.
“But people should also know that they can demonstrate those same characteristics in other parts of their application. So they shouldn’t shortchange the rest of their application. So I see a lot of people who, they get their numbers back, and they say, ‘Okay, well let me go down a list here, and see where I fit. And I’m just going to apply there. And I’m not really going to bother with the rest of this because it’s just kind of window dressing.’ But it’s not really, because they’re definitely looking for a class that’s going to challenge one another and hold everyone’s interest. And they’re looking for people that they want to admit to their profession, because law is a profession. And part of it is personality. So again, numbers are very important and people should absolutely do their best. But they should not shortchange the rest of their application.”
And that takes us to our fifth tip – “personality matters”. Admissions directors are looking for intellectual and interpersonal skill sets that can thrive in intense intellectual environments. Dean Geiger explains it this way: “In letters of recommendation, do the recommenders talk about how well the person plays in the sandbox? You know, how do they respond to criticism? What happens when they, you know, are asked to respond to an idea that kind of takes them out of their comfort zone? That kind of information is key because of, you know, the really dynamic atmosphere that exists and the, you know… And the people around you at a school are going to be achievers, and people who aren’t afraid to put their ideas out there. So you have to be comfortable doing that, as well. And so we’re looking at experiences, at things recommenders say that lead us to believe that an applicant is going to be the kind of person who really feels comfortable in that kind of environment. And not just comfortable, but can really add to it, and make it better.”
This one involves careful balancing – you should “elegantly stuff your application with all good things, but watch your attitude”. Be sincere, says Dean Richards, but not arrogant. “It’s a tough task because you want to… you’re obviously trying to impress us and show us how great you are when you’re applying to law school. But there are candidates who just come off as like, ‘Man! We don’t want this guy here. You know, because he’s so full of himself.’ So I mean, for example, a 21-year-old doesn’t need to have a five-page resume, and make every breath he’s taken seem like the most important thing in the history of the world. So it’s really to kind of objectively present the experience, you know, the information that you want committees to consider, in a humble way, in a way that makes us think, Man, you’re a nice guy. You know, you’re accomplished, but you’re also going to be a team player and, you know, be a good study partner, and help somebody. You know, if he’s sick you’re going to share notes. We want to see that it’s somebody we’re going to want in our law school, in our law school family.”
Strategically, paint yourself in a good light, Dean Geiger agrees. “It’s okay to highlight your strengths. We’re asking you to. Of course you have to do it in a way that doesn’t make you sound like you’re obnoxious. But you know, it’s okay in this setting to let us know the great things that you’ve done.
“The other thing that I think can be done, especially through the strategic use of recommendations, is you can get other people to talk about those things, so that, you know, sometimes it has a lot more credibility and ends up being sort of a stronger presentation if you have somebody else say the great things about you that you’d like to say yourself. So, another way to get across something is to strategically use recommenders to say the things that you’d like to say yourself, but you’re afraid might sound kind of obnoxious coming out of your mouth.”
It’s a total package you must create for the admissions committee. And that’s our sixth tip, to “present a great package”. Dean Richards, “At every law school it’s a holistic approach that admissions committees take trying to, you know, get to know the candidate, both credentialized qualifications-wise, and also kind of who is each candidate, you know, as a person; and what personal attributes are they going to bring in to the law school community? So the resume is really important to get a sense of the different, you know, experiences that the person has had.
“And then the personal statement. We all require some writing. Some schools may give prompts and want a candidate to address specific topics or explain why they want that particular school. Many of us just leave it open-ended and ask the candidates to give us a personal statement. And that’s really the candidate’s opportunity to present him- or herself as a person — you know, what is their unique… that he or she can contribute? And the personal statements, if they’re open-ended, can be, you know, a story about a particular incident in one’s life, challenges they’ve overcome, you know, what their goals and aspirations are. So, I mean that really covers the spectrum as well, in terms of what topics that student applicants to law school choose to write about.”
Get meaningful recommenders. “People need to choose their recommenders carefully, make sure that they’re going to write strong recommendations, you know, detailed recommendations about one’s academic abilities, work ethic, character. Getting a big name on Capitol Hill who doesn’t know you is not going to help you. We get a lot of that. So it really is more important to get just meaningful recommendations from professors, work supervisors, people who really know the candidate.”
Admissions committees have a list of myriad qualities wherein they will find demonstrable expression of these characteristics needed for a perfect law school student. But there is no perfect law school candidate. “You look for people who are likely to thrive, based on the information you have across the multiple areas that are going to be in play during law school. You have to be able to thrive in class. You’ve got to be, you know, comfortable engaging in a dynamic kind of learning experience. You’ve got to be comfortable with teamwork. You’ve got to be comfortable with your ideas being challenged. You have to work really hard. You know, if you’re not feeling well, you can’t take a day off.
“You know, it’s that kind of thing, it’s this sort of composite that you’re looking for. And you find evidence of all of those things, scattered throughout the application. And you find it scattered throughout in different ways for different people, which is why it’s really hard to sort of build, the perfect composite applicant.”
It’s important to get a genuinely objective view of how your application looks and sounds. So, tip number seven is to “have someone objective review your application”. Practice saying, “Sorry, Mom.” Again, Andrea Kilpatrick: “I know that when I was applying to law school, my mom read my application, and she just thought it was the best thing. And I think that’s the challenge, that people often have people who have a vested interest in them, whether it’s their parents or their friends. They know it’s very important to you and they think that you’re the best thing walking the earth. So they tend to be a little bit skewed in the information that they give you.
“So if you can get somebody else to review your application, whether it’s a teacher, or somebody from the pre-law office at your undergrad, or an admissions consultant — somebody who really doesn’t have any kind of bias — to look over what you’ve written…it’s important because you spend so much time and you put so much of yourself into it, it’s kind of hard to be objective and step back and evaluate what you’ve done, either saying, ‘You know, I need to beef this up a little bit,’ or say, ‘You know what? This is great,’ and stop tweaking it because you’re missing the rolling admissions deadline.”
In our multimedia tech-enhanced world, it’s easy to rely on websites, blogs, or podcasts to choose a law school to apply to. But that just doesn’t cut it. So, tip eight is to “visit your top schools”. Dean Post, “Visit the schools, if you can. If you cannot visit the schools as an applicant, which certainly students with full course loads can’t do; students who are working fulltime jobs may not be able to get the time off to do…visit the schools after you’ve received the decisions. So if you have been admitted to a school, and it is in your top three, your top four, you want to get there, talk to current students, talk to alumni, talk to faculty, talk to the administration, to see whether or not it is the right place for you for the next three years.”
Spend a day at a law school. See how it feels. See what the atmosphere is like. Ask yourself if you’ll be happy going there every day, says Dean Richards. “I think finding the right fit is really important. I mean, there are some schools that are known to be kind of more hardcore competitive. There are schools that are known to be, you know, more collegial. I think we all favor collaborative and collegial, and it’s really true at some schools…I don’t think it’s as true at some other schools. So I think spending time, you know, visiting, sitting in on a class, seeing how current students greet you, if they look at you, if they say, ‘Hey, are you a visitor?’ and, ‘I’d be happy to talk to you.’ I think that’s really important if you’re looking for that. I mean there may be some people who don’t want that. They don’t want, you know, a social school. They just want to go and be driven and do their work, and you know, get their big firm job. So it really depends what somebody is looking for.”
Applying to law school is an arduous and stressful process. Putting forth your very best effort is all that you can really do, and our ninth tip is to “hang in there”. Resiliency pays off, according to Dean Geiger. “I know this is going to sound sort of silly, but this process is difficult. And it goes on and on and on. And a lot of times you’re not going to get into your top pick right off the bat. But, if you stay active in the process, let the school know that you’re still there, that you’re still interested, that you want to be there…obviously, don’t stalk us, but you know, keep the interest level high. Resiliency pays off in this process. People who have the flexibility to hang in there, and keep on hanging in there, sometimes get in just because of the fact that they hung in there.”
Applying to law school is not the same as updating your status on Facebook. So our final tip, number ten, is to “consider carefully what you choose to say about yourself to the admissions committee, and be careful what you say online”. Nothing is anonymous anymore. It’s also best to ignore online chatter, says Dean Richards. “I wish that people would just pick up the phone and call us, and ask us their question instead of just putting it out to the world, and getting incorrect information. Because there’s been a lot of misinformation out there. I think a lot of things spiral, just in a… in not the right way, in a bad way. So I think, you know, I wish a lot of law school applicants could use better judgment in terms of what they put out there, number one; and also go to the source to get accurate answers. No law school admissions people are trying to hide the ball. You know, we tell you what’s going on, and we tell you what we know. And we’re the ones in the process at particular institutions who can provide accurate answers.”
Call with your questions, Dean Richards says. Admissions people are there to help prospective applicants and future lawyers find the best place for them and then work on getting there. And there’s a bonus tip – “get lots of information”. Andrea Kilpatrick: “Applicants who are interested in applying should do things like listen to these kinds of podcasts because there’s a lot of information out there, and guidance that organizations provide to applicants, that I think makes all the difference in the world.”
There’s no magic in the admissions process. There’s no scientific formula. It’s helpful to remember that admissions officers are just people too. And they’re looking to fill their law school class with the most diverse, intellectual, well-suited people for their school. And while there are no absolute guidelines they adhere to when they review your application, the tips you’ve heard here give you more or less a sense of what they think. Good luck!
For more information, a transcript of the show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.LawSchoolPodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan, with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.